The Nameless Horror

Up from the depths

Shit me, it’s been a while since I used this thing, and I’m sure anyone reading this who knows/knew who I am will have assumed I died or joined a traveling circus. This will change.

The “being a while”, not the circus.

The principal reason it’s been a while is that I’ve been very busy since September. The editing side was crazy-busy all last year and especially during October/November, when I had a string of projects, big and small, all in a row. (I then worked till my eyeballs caught fire in order to have December clear to work on my own material for the first time in months, which was almost like a holiday.)

It’s been busy since, but Morgan’s nursery hours are longer and I’m spacing things out slightly less manically. (And setting aside a small amount of time per week to write, too, which stops that becoming an unwanted source of stress; “you’re not doing anything, John,” etc.. This is doubly good since the concept’s interesting, surprisingly challenging (no/limited action, for starters; you have to go back to the early Rourkes for the last time I did that at novel length), and the setting satisfying to write in. It’s crime, too, so back on old turf for the first time in forever.)

It’s good that the editing side has been busy. Not only does that mean it’s paying my share of the bills - not earning a pile of cash, probably not/hardly any more than minimum wage given the hours I put in (given that I’m dead thorough, me, insert grinning billboard graphic here), but keeping things ticking over - it also means I’ve been working with a broad range of writers over an equally broad range of stories, which is great, and I’ve had the pleasure of working on some absolute gems. Which is also great. Some jobs are tougher than others, but I enjoy editing. I like fixing stuff that needs to be fixed. I like being able to tell someone that “this is very good” when it doesn’t.

So there’s been that.

There’s also been a technical aspect to it. A couple of years ago, a bit iffy about Tumblr post-Yahoo buyout, I switched this blog to Jekyll. And for a while, all was well. Everything shunted through Dropbox and since everything can talk to Dropbox, things were dead convenient. But then my webhost killed that; even though the Dropbox daemon was being stopped once it had run a periodic update, it was still a daemon and that’s against their ToS (as it is on just about all shared hosting that I’m aware of). Fair enough. So the bit of networky stuff that uploaded to Jekyll had to run instead through Git, which it was really built for. And while Git’s ‘hook’ system allowed the site to rebuild every time I updated anything, I had to be on my laptop to do it in order to push the thing through. And that turned out to be a real gyp. No more automation (short of scheduling a script to run to do it, and that quickly got annoying since it requires a password to connect each time).

So I had less time and spare energy and a much higher hassle barrier to overcome. Fuck that.

Over the past couple of weeks, though, I’ve switched the hosting arrangement to something far fiddlier to set up, an arrangement which I’ll have to outline at some point for both my own failing memory and for the surprising number of visits I still get for that post of two years ago detailing the last collection of tricks, but which once done means that all (almost; scheduling site rebuilds is a work in progress, but manually doing it is literally two taps on my phone) the automatic create-post-in-Dropbox stuff happens again and there’s no faff involved for me to do quick life-dumps on the fly as well as longer walls of text like this one. (Expect some automatic pic-posting via Instagram in a little while as I test out the system for bugs.)

In short, I should be back on the internet proper, not just your Facebooks or your Twitters. No one’s reading this and none of you have missed it anyway, but screw you, I never liked you guys anyway.

Round-Up - Things Wot I've Read

I have Been Away, both literally (visiting family during the summer break), and metaphorically (having slipped into a sort of online ninja smoke cloud that renders me unseen and unheard, otherwise known as being mostly rather busy). During this time, I have read things and been shown things, and now I arise from beneath the waters, squamous and non-Euclidian, to share them with you. So, in no particular order, here we go.

Mockingbird (Chuck Wendig): Second in the Miriam Black series. I very much liked the first. This, probably a shade - but only a shade - less so. Something to do, I suspect, with the peculiar ease with which Miriam repeatedly makes her way around the reclusive girls’ school in which much of the action occurs, and also with the bad guys not being, to me at least, either as entertaining or as fleshed-out as in the first. Again, only a shade - I pick holes because I care; for the most part, this book is still great fun. And I’ll still read Cormorant when the chance arises.

The Blue Blazes (also Chuck Wendig): It’s a gangland NYC organised crime story, only with goblins and vicious snake-people. It’s also very good. The world-building for it (on which the story hinges) feels sound, and the characters, Mookie and his daughter in particular, are solid indeed. There are some lovely imaginative touches in here that I won’t spoil. Great fun. I can’t remember if it has/will/might someday become a series, but I’d hope so.

Finch (not Chuck Wendig for once but Jeff Vandermeer): I started reading this ages ago, but even though other stuff (work, mostly) got in the way, I stuck with it because this is a wonderfully-imagined world and the story is thoroughly compelling. If I were to pick holes, perhaps the ending doesn’t quite compare to the build-up beforehand (the close of Heretic’s part of the story, for instance, happens off-camera and largely off-hand) and lacks some of the grimy, fungal flourish of the earlier parts, the nature of the Resistance is a little odd, etc., but it’s still OK, and what comes before is gloriously written.

Inverting The Pyramid: The History Of Football Tactics (Jonathan Wilson): Been meaning to look at this for ages. Obviously it’s non-fiction, and obviously it’s about sport, and not everyone has an interest. But if you do have any at all in football/soccer, this is a superb read. Excellently structured, with one piece of history in one part of the world flowing neatly into another in another, and very smoothly written. And genuinely fascinating too, far more so than perhaps the title suggests. It’s a very broad history of the game told through the tactics, philosophies and developments that have shaped it and reshaped it down the decades.

The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Football Is Wrong (Chris Anderson, David Sally): I grabbed this alongside Inverting The Pyramid as a sort of football reading twofer, but it’s a whole ‘nother world. Claiming to be a sort of objective statistical analysis of the game (Moneyball, mentioned repeatedly, is probably a fair analogy), its occasional good points are let down by some glaring errors in its methodology, most of which involve treating one side or element as existing wholly independently of others. For example, a key claim of the early stages of the book, one outlined at great length, is that 50% of games are decided not in fact by talent but by luck. Due, so the statistics go, to factors outside a team’s control, such as the ‘beachball goal’ at Sunderland a few years ago or a misplaced pass or missed tackle in defence. Sadly, which getting a goal via a deflection off a beachball that’s blown onto the pitch is genuine chance (and mighty rare), a misplaced pass or tackle can easily be argued to be the result of either a relative lack of skill or else deliberate tactics by the opposition to force such errors (such as Dortmund’s pressing game) and thus not chance at all. Likewise, arguing that goalscorers are rare in football and thus more prized because ~50% of players in a given Premiership season won’t score anything is crazy since you’re completely ignoring the fact that this is largely the result of formation; all 11 don’t take turns up in the opposing penalty box, and that a goalkeeper, four defenders and a holding midfielder or two generally don’t appear on the scoresheet shouldn’t surprise anyone at all. Again likewise, arguing that Chelsea should have signed Darren Bent because he scored the most key goals (that is, ones that win matches rather than, say, the third in a 4-0 thumping) two seasons running while players like Didier Drogba were further down the list ignores the fact that Chelsea, like other high-placed teams, were far more likely to thump teams 4-0 (and thus had fewer key goals as a ratio of goals scored) and had more goalscorers overall (with their talent-rich front line) than Sunderland, who lost more games, and squeaked more narrow wins as a ratio of their overall victories. (And who quite possibly also rotated their squad less, being a smaller side, giving him more match time.) I could go on. I’m sure the methods of statistical analysis employed are impeccable, but there’s so often an apparent lack of consideration for the structure of the game in reality that picking out the good bits is an exercise in frustration.

Tobacco-Stained Mountain Goat: The Graphic Novel (Andrez Bergen): I liked this a lot back in the day, and Andrez sent me - and, I imagine, half the population of the planet, being the cunning devil he is - the newly-minted graphic novel in digital form. If you haven’t tried out TSMG, you now have another option by which to do so. He also sent me the upcoming Bullet Gal (spun-off from Heropa). In both cases he mostly uses photomanipulation rather than line drawing for the art, which is both clever, and hard to pull off well. If I’m honest, it doesn’t always completely work for me - there are pages where definition loss through filtering makes it a little hard to follow (less an issue in TSMG, which has a more surreal air anyway), but again, I’m only picking. I’d still happily point your filthy view-holes towards both, and the digital copy of TSMG is only a couple of bucks so what’s the risk?

How Amazon (or someone else) could do book discovery - Bookhoppr

My notebook has, on its first page, a little book discovery concept that I doubt I’ll ever have the time to explore in reality. Ignoring the current publishing battles for a moment, let’s look at how someone with the wherewithall - and a suitably chunky database of titles to call on, whether that’s Amazon (the obvious) or someone else - could have another crack at book discovery. That notebook page is titled “Bookhoppr”.

How it would work:

When you finish a book and enjoy it (that part is key), you go into your Bookhoppr app and mark it as read. By scanning the barcode, or entering the ISBN or ASIN, or title/author matching, or through direct pipe from your reader app of choice (“mark as read on Bookhoppr”). If you know what you’re going to move on to, you stop there. If you’re not going to pick something else up straight away, you stop there. If you’re not sure what to read next, or it’s been a while and you’re wondering what to pick up now, you tap on the big “tell me what to read next” button.

The system looks at what you’ve just read, and what you read before that, and before that - all the hops from book to book you’ve made - and compares them with other users. It takes the closest matches - let’s say the statistically most similar 1% for a touch of variation in results - and based on what those people read next from the book you last finished, it gives you one suggestion at random that doesn’t already appear in your own hops. If you don’t own it, it’ll give you a buy/sample/see reviews link. If you don’t like that suggestion, you can tell it to try again.

That’s it. Maybe throw in an extra button: “Make me different”, that gives you a rec based on the statistically least similar 1%, or books that no one read next. Maybe too an algorithmic backup for when there are no hop-based recs. But basically very limited functionality. Tell it you’ve read something and it’ll tell you what to go for next. No reviews, no attempt at being a social network because places for those already exist. Not even a “load in my existing bookshelf”, except perhaps as a way of avoiding duplicate recs, though you could certainly have simple profile information showing what you’d read. It’d be easy enough to throw in a “Tweet this!”/”Facebook this!” option whenever you use the system for a recommendation, and an API to allow other apps to interact with your read/rec flow, but otherwise keep all of that side of things to those places that deal with it already. Stick to one thing and do it well.

What it would need:

First off, a huge goddamn database, carrying all formats and able to match each to one unified “this is all the same book” entry regardless of ISBN/ASIN. Amazon’s must be just about the best for this. I can’t remember if there’s access Amazon’s product database via some kind of API, but if not, well, this is probably something only the Big A could pull off. Even other vendors with databases of their own would struggle to include everything, particularly self-published work with only an ASIN. This is by far the biggest hurdle as without this the whole thing falls to pieces.

Second, a button for “add a book to the database” for those times when even whatever one you’re using doesn’t have what you’ve read.

Third, some people able to slowly sift those additions for duplicates and roll entries in together where needed.

Fourth, it’d have to appear as a mobile app on both iOS and Android from the very beginning. That app should ideally also have a barcode scanner (or ISBN number reader even), similar to that in the eBay app, to allow easy tagging of hardcopy books.

Fifth, and this is the second biggest hurdle, it would need a big userbase to be viable. It’s dependent on there being enough user entries in the Bookhoppr list to produce recs from a wide variety of requests. And it would have to be able to do so at launch. That means a really big alpha/beta.

Sixth, it would need to be both simple and fun to use. You could, if you were so inclined, gamify the experience slightly as with Foursquare. (“Jane Q Public has just become George R. R. Martin’s biggest reader!” etc.) If it’s not quick, simple, and fun, it’s dead. If you have to jump through hoops or fill out endless text fields whenever you’ve read a book, forget it.

Seventh, it would need to be quick and simple to maintain and manage users and the database at the back end. Having peered into the murky depths of a much smaller project back with 3NJ, I know how vital that is.

Eighth, you’d need either a vast pot of cash or some way of monetizing what would be a chunky thing to organize and maintain. Ads are annoying and an unreliable income source. Offering a hobbled free version and a full-spread paid version would be shitty to the user. Perhaps run a limit on entries/recs with a very, very low barrier to clear and the equivalent of a profile badge or a little bit of glitz to say thanks for supporting it. Every thirty books (or 30, then 50, then 100 to avoid gouging long-time users) you have to pay a buck in-app, something like that. Enough that you’d have to be a regular user (and presumably a fan of the service) to hit it, and a small enough amount not to seem grasping.

Anything else I’m missing?

Notes on morning reading

1. Hachette did not negotiate in good faith before the end of the contract.

They didn’t negotiate at all. Amazon and Hachette agree on this crucial point. The first Hachette offer was in April. Amazon says the original contract ran out in March and Hachette hasn’t denied it. In my view, the party that makes no attempt to negotiate during the term of the original contract is the instigator of the stand-off.

2. Hachette knew for months that their authors were being harmed and they did nothing.

Sullivan noticed that the usual Amazon discounts on his titles were gone on February 7. He saw the inventory issues on March 9. He let Hachette know about both issues. At that point Hachette had let their contract expire without so much as a counter-offer.

Read that again.

“Amazon says the original contract ran out in March…”

“Sullivan noticed that the usual Amazon discounts on his titles were gone on February 7. He saw the inventory issues on March 9.

“Hachette did not negotiate in good faith before the end of the contract.”

Neither, apparently, did Amazon, if they felt happy to start playing hardball a month or more before the end of their existing contract. (Blah blah blah, confirmation bias, Stockholm Syndrome, etc. etc.) (linkage)